For a narrative explanation of this source sheet, see Mordechai the Villain: The Untold Story of Drinking on Purim by Ayalon Eliach in Ha'aretz, February 26, 2015, available at: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.644369
Why would Rava (280-352 CE) want people to stop distinguishing between how to relate to Mordechai, the hero, and how to relate to Haman, the villain of the Purim story recorded in the Book of Esther? Also, why use alcohol to accomplish this goal?
This statement suggests that Rava believed alcohol helps people become wiser and more insightful, rather than confused (note that Rava doesn't suggest that a lot of alcohol is needed to gain insight). How is it wise to stop distinguishing between Mordechai and Haman? Aren't they polar opposites?
(5) At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike. (6) [There were hangings of] white cotton and blue wool, caught up by cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods and alabaster columns; and there were couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mosaics. (7) Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design. (8) And the rule for the drinking was, “No restrictions!” For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes.
״לעשות כרצון איש ואיש״ (אסתר א:ח). אמר רבא: לעשות כרצון מרדכי והמן. מרדכי דכתיב ״איש יהודי״ (אסתר ב:ה) המן ״איש צר ואויב״ (אסתר ז:ו).
“To comply with each man’s wishes” (Esther 1:8). Rava commented on the literal meaning of the verse, which is referring to two men, a man and a man [ish va’ish], and said: The man and man whom they should follow indicates that they should do according to the wishes of Mordecai and Haman. The two of them served as butlers at the feast, and they were in charge of distributing the wine. Why is the verse interpreted in this way? Mordecai is called “man,” as it is written: “There was a certain Jewish man [ish] in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair” (Esther 2:5). And Haman is also called man, as it states: “A man [ish] who is an adversary and an enemy, this evil Haman” (Esther 7:6).
Is Rava's interpretation in any way an implied reading of Esther 1:8? If not, why would he offer another equation of Mordechai and Haman?
שאלו תלמידיו את רשב"י: מפני מה נתחייבו שונאיהן של ישראל שבאותו הדור כליה? אמר להם: אמרו אתם. אמרו לו: מפני שנהנו מסעודתו של אותו רשע.
The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai asked him: For what reason were the enemies of Jewish people, a euphemism for the Jewish people themselves when exhibiting behavior that is not in their best interests, in that generation deserving of annihilation? He, Rabbi Shimon, said to them: Say the answer to your question yourselves. They said to him: It is because they partook of the feast of that wicked one, Ahasuerus.
This extremely negative conception of Ahasuerus's feast is, for all purposes, universally accepted in rabbinic sources. Why then would Rava go out of his way to offer a far-fetched interpretation of Esther 1:8 to suggest that Mordechai was in charge of wine (along with Haman) at the party?
״לא נעשה עמו דבר״ (אסתר ו:ג). אמר רבא: לא מפני שאוהבין את מרדכי אלא מפני ששונאים את המן.
Is Rava's interpretation in any way an implied reading of Esther 6:3? If not, why does he go out of his way to say that people don't like Mordechai?
Is Rava's interpretation in any way an implied reading of Esther 2:6? If not, why does he go out of his way to suggest that Mordechai voluntarily abandoned the holy city of Jerusalem so that he could live in Persia?
אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר' יהושע בן לוי: אביו מבנימין ואמו מיהודה. ורבנן אמרי: משפחות מתגרות זו בזו. משפחת יהודה אומרת אנא גרים דמתיליד מרדכי דלא קטליה דוד לשמעי בן גרא. ומשפחת בנימין אמרה מינאי קאתי. רבא אמר: כנסת ישראל אמרה לאידך גיסא: ראו מה עשה לי יהודי ומה שילם לי ימיני. מה עשה לי יהודי דלא קטליה דוד לשמעי דאתיליד מיניה מרדכי דמיקני ביה המן. ומה שילם לי ימיני דלא קטליה שאול לאגג דאתיליד מיניה המן דמצער לישראל.
Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said an alternative explanation: Mordecai’s father was from the tribe of Benjamin, and his mother was from the tribe of Judah. Therefore, he was both a Yemini, a Benjamite, and a Yehudi, from the tribe of Judah. And the Rabbis say that the dual lineage is due to a dispute: The families competed with each other over which tribe could take credit for Mordecai. The family of Judah would say: I caused the birth of Mordecai, as only because David did not kill Shimei, the son of Gera, when he cursed him (see II Samuel, chapter 16) was it possible for Mordecai to be born later from his descendants. And the family of Benjamin said in response: In the end he came from me, as he in fact was from Benjamin’s tribe. Rava said: The Congregation of Israel at the time said this from the opposite perspective, not as a boast, but as a complaint, remarking: See what a Judean has done to me and how a Benjamite has repaid me. What a Judean has done to me is referring to the responsibility of Judah, as David did not kill Shimei, although he was liable to the death penalty. The grave consequences of this failure included that Mordecai was born from him, and it was he against whom Haman was jealous, leading Haman to issue a decree against all of the Jewish people. And how a Benjamite has repaid me is referring to the fact that Saul, who was from the tribe of Benjamin, did not kill the Amalekite king Agag immediately, from whom Haman was later born, and he caused suffering to the Jewish people.
Notice Rava's alternative explanation in which he says it would have been good if Mordechai's ancestors would have been killed so that Mordechai would have never been born and, therefore, not have incited Haman. Why would Rava say this? Wasn't Mordechai a hero for following the Jewish tradition by not bowing down to Haman?
איתמר: העובד עבודת כוכבים מאהבה ומיראה, אביי אמר חייב, רבא אמר פטור. אביי אמר חייב דהא פלחה. רבא אמר פטור אי קבליה עליה באלוה אין אי לא לא...
אמר אביי: מנא אמינא לה? דתניא ״לא תשתחוה להם״ (שמות כ:ד) להם אי אתה משתחוה אבל אתה משתחוה לאדם כמותך. יכול אפילו נעבד כהמן? ת"ל ״ולא תעבדם״ (שמות כ:ד).
והא המן מיראה הוה נעבד.
ורבא: כהמן ולא כהמן. כהמן דאיהו גופיה עבודת כוכבים. ולא כהמן דאילו המן מיראה והכא לאו מיראה.
It has been taught: If one engages in idolatry through love or fear of people, but does not actually accept the divinity of the idol, Abaye said, he is liable to punishment; but Rava said, he is free from a penalty. Abaye ruled that he is liable, since he worshipped it; but
Rava said that he is innocent: only if he accepts it as a god is he liable, but not otherwise...
Abaye said: What is the source for my position? It has been taught in an earlier rabbinic source:
"You shall not bow down to them" (Exodus 20:4): You shall not bow down to them (i.e., to other Gods), but you may bow down to a person like yourself.
Could a person like Haman therefore be worshipped?
The continuation of the verse in the Torah teaches that you may not: "And you shall not worship them" (Exodus 20:4).
After bringing in his proof text, Abeye explains how this rabbinic source proves his point: And Haman was worshipped through fear, which means that this earlier rabbinic source held that it was prohibited to bow to him even though it was done in fear.
Rava responds by reading the earlier rabbinic source differently: The prohibition in the source only applies to someone "like
Haman" but not altogether like Haman. To bow down to one "like Haman" is forbidden, since he set himself up as a divinity; but the prohibition only extends to someone not altogether like Haman for Haman was worshipped through fear, while the prohibition applies only to a voluntary action.
In this text, Rava says explicitly that it was not prohibited for Mordechai to bow to Haman because he would have been doing so out of fear, and such bowing is permissible. How could this be possible? Isn't idolatry one of the three cardinal sins (along with murder and illicit sexual relations) that one must die rather rather than transgress, even in cases of fear?
אמר רבא: הכל היו בכלל ״לא תעבדם״ (שמות כ:ד) וכשפרט לך הכתוב ״וחי בהם״ (ויקרא יח:ה) ולא שימות בהם יצא אונס. והדר כתב רחמנא ״ולא תחללו את שם קדשי״ (ויקרא כ״ב:ל״ב) דאפילו באונס. הא כיצד? הא בצנעא והא בפרהסיא.
Rava said: All forms of idolatry were
included in the general prohibition of "You shall not worship them" (Exodus 20:4); but when the Torah specified "And live by them" (Leviticus 18:5), which teaches that you should not not die because of your observance of them (i.e., observance of the commandments), this specification teaches that a person who acts under
coercion of physical violence is excluded from the general prohibition against idolatry. After that, however, the All Merciful Torah wrote "And you shall not profane my holy name" (Leviticus 22:32), which means that one may not worship idolatry not even under coercion of physical violence! How can these two views -- that idolatry under threat of physical coercion is both permitted and prohibited -- be reconciled?
The former refers to an act in private, the latter to an act in public.
In this passage, Rava makes clear that he only thinks forced idolatry is a cardinal sin when done in public. Even so, if Mordechai had bowed down to Haman, wouldn't it have been in public and, therefore, prohibited, even according to Rava?
והא אסתר פרהסיא הואי!
אמר אביי: אסתר קרקע עולם היתה.
רבא אמר: הנאת עצמן שאני. דאי לא תימא הכי הני קוואקי ודימוניקי היכי יהבינן לה? אלא הנאת עצמן שאני. הכא נמי הנאת עצמן שאני. ואזדא רבא לטעמיה דאמר רבא: עכו"ם דאמר ליה להאי ישראל: קטול אספסתא בשבתא ושדי לחיותא ואי לא קטילנא לך - ליקטיל ולא לקטליה. שדי לנהרא - ליקטליה ולא ליקטול. מ"ט? לעבורי מילתא קא בעי.
But Esther violated a cardinal sin in public by having sex with King Ahasuerus, which everyone knew about!
Abaye answered: Esther was passive in her sin.
Rava said: When a persecutor demands violation of a sin for their personal pleasure, it is different, and therefore permissible, even when in public. For otherwise, how could we bring materials to the churches of the local idolaters? Therefore, cardinal sins performed for their personal pleasure is different, and permissible; so here too, in Esther's case, her action was purely for the coercer's, King Ahasuerus's pleasure, and was therefore different, and permissible.
This concurs with Rava's view expressed elsewhere. For Rava said: If an idolater said to a Jew: "Cut grass on the Sabbath (a traditionally prohibited act) for the cattle, and if not I will kill you," he must cut the grass rather be killed; but if the idolater said: "Cut it and throw it into the river," he should be killed rather than cut it. Why so? Because his intention in the latter case is to force the Jew to violate his religion, rather than do something for the idolater's pleasure, which is the first scenario of cutting grass to feed cattle.
Rava clarifies that he believes forced idolatry is permitted even in public if the coercer is forcing the act for personal pleasure. In the Purim story, Haman wants to be worshipped out of egoism, which would seem to fall squarely within Rava's exception for personal pleasure. Not only that, but Rava notes explicitly that Esther permissibly violated a cardinal sin in public because it was for the coercer's personal pleasure. This suggests that Esther did precisely what Mordechai did not. This incongruence is further highlighted when comparing Esther's and Mordechai's decisions.
(ח) וַיְהִ֗י בְּהִשָּׁמַ֤ע דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְדָת֔וֹ וּֽבְהִקָּבֵ֞ץ נְעָר֥וֹת רַבּ֛וֹת אֶל־שׁוּשַׁ֥ן הַבִּירָ֖ה אֶל־יַ֣ד הֵגָ֑י וַתִּלָּקַ֤ח אֶסְתֵּר֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־יַ֥ד הֵגַ֖י שֹׁמֵ֥ר הַנָּשִֽׁים׃ (ט) וַתִּיטַ֨ב הַנַּעֲרָ֣ה בְעֵינָיו֮ וַתִּשָּׂ֣א חֶ֣סֶד לְפָנָיו֒ וַ֠יְבַהֵל אֶת־תַּמְרוּקֶ֤יהָ וְאֶת־מָנוֹתֶ֙הָ֙ לָתֵ֣ת לָ֔הּ וְאֵת֙ שֶׁ֣בַע הַנְּעָר֔וֹת הָרְאֻי֥וֹת לָֽתֶת־לָ֖הּ מִבֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיְשַׁנֶּ֧הָ וְאֶת־נַעֲרוֹתֶ֛יהָ לְט֖וֹב בֵּ֥ית הַנָּשִֽׁים׃ (י) לֹא־הִגִּ֣ידָה אֶסְתֵּ֔ר אֶת־עַמָּ֖הּ וְאֶת־מֽוֹלַדְתָּ֑הּ כִּ֧י מָרְדֳּכַ֛י צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־תַגִּֽיד׃ ... (כ) אֵ֣ין אֶסְתֵּ֗ר מַגֶּ֤דֶת מֽוֹלַדְתָּהּ֙ וְאֶת־עַמָּ֔הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ מָרְדֳּכָ֑י וְאֶת־מַאֲמַ֤ר מָרְדֳּכַי֙ אֶסְתֵּ֣ר עֹשָׂ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר הָיְתָ֥ה בְאָמְנָ֖ה אִתּֽוֹ׃
(8) When the king’s order and edict was proclaimed, and when many girls were assembled in the fortress Shushan under the supervision of Hegai, Esther too was taken into the king’s palace under the supervision of Hegai, guardian of the women. (9) The girl pleased him and won his favor, and he hastened to furnish her with her cosmetics and her rations, as well as with the seven maids who were her due from the king’s palace; and he treated her and her maids with special kindness in the harem. (10) Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it... (20) But Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.
(א) אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה גִּדַּל֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֜וֹשׁ אֶת־הָמָ֧ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֛תָא הָאֲגָגִ֖י וַֽיְנַשְּׂאֵ֑הוּ וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ אֶת־כִּסְא֔וֹ מֵעַ֕ל כָּל־הַשָּׂרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ׃ (ב) וְכָל־עַבְדֵ֨י הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ כֹּרְעִ֤ים וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִים֙ לְהָמָ֔ן כִּי־כֵ֖ן צִוָּה־ל֣וֹ הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וּמָ֨רְדֳּכַ֔י לֹ֥א יִכְרַ֖ע וְלֹ֥א יִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶֽה׃ (ג) וַיֹּ֨אמְר֜וּ עַבְדֵ֥י הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־בְּשַׁ֥עַר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ לְמָרְדֳּכָ֑י מַדּ֙וּעַ֙ אַתָּ֣ה עוֹבֵ֔ר אֵ֖ת מִצְוַ֥ת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ (ד) וַיְהִ֗י באמרם [כְּאָמְרָ֤ם] אֵלָיו֙ י֣וֹם וָי֔וֹם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיַּגִּ֣ידוּ לְהָמָ֗ן לִרְאוֹת֙ הֲיַֽעַמְדוּ֙ דִּבְרֵ֣י מָרְדֳּכַ֔י כִּֽי־הִגִּ֥יד לָהֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא יְהוּדִֽי׃ (ה) וַיַּ֣רְא הָמָ֔ן כִּי־אֵ֣ין מָרְדֳּכַ֔י כֹּרֵ֥עַ וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה ל֑וֹ וַיִּמָּלֵ֥א הָמָ֖ן חֵמָֽה׃ (ו) וַיִּ֣בֶז בְּעֵינָ֗יו לִשְׁלֹ֤ח יָד֙ בְּמָרְדֳּכַ֣י לְבַדּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־הִגִּ֥ידוּ ל֖וֹ אֶת־עַ֣ם מָרְדֳּכָ֑י וַיְבַקֵּ֣שׁ הָמָ֗ן לְהַשְׁמִ֧יד אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֛ר בְּכָל־מַלְכ֥וּת אֲחַשְׁוֵר֖וֹשׁ עַ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי׃
(1) Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials. (2) All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. (3) Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” (4) When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (5) When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. (6) But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
Notice the hypocrisy of Mordechai telling Esther not to reveal that she is Jewish, while he boldly proclaims his identity, even when risking the lives of all Jewish people by doing so.
״ויבז בעיניו לשלוח יד במרדכי לבדו״ (אסתר ג:ו). אמר רבא: בתחילה במרדכי לבדו, ולבסוף בעם מרדכי, ומנו? רבנן, ולבסוף בכל היהודים.
The verse states: “But it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay his hand on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai” (Esther 3:6). Rava said: At first he wanted to lay his hands on Mordecai alone, and in the end on the people of Mordecai. And who were the people of Mordecai? They were the Sages, i.e., Mordecai’s special people. And ultimately he sought to bring harm on all the Jews.
Rava's reading of this part of the Purim story highlights that he believed Mordechai had multiple opportunities to backtrack on his wrong decision to risk the lives of all Jews by not bowing to Haman, yet Mordechai persisted in doing the wrong thing.
רב נחמן אמר: קרייתא זו הלילא. רבא אמר: בשלמא התם ״הללו עבדי ה'״ (תהלים קי״ג:א) ולא עבדי פרעה. אלא הכא הללו עבדי ה' ולא עבדי אחשורוש? אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן.
Rava's reading of the Book of Esther leads to a pessimistic understanding of the holiday of Purim. We do not read the joyous praise of Hallel, according to Rava, because there is not much to be joyous about. Bringing things full circle, Rava wanted people to drink on Purim so that they could have the wisdom to recognize what he saw as the reality of this holiday -- a reality in which Mordechai hypocritically and wrongly endangered the entire Jewish people unnecessarily -- rather than the way it was commonly understood, even in his time.
For a follow-up to the source sheet regarding the story about Rava killing Rabbi Zeira while getting drunk at a Purim feast, see Rava's Murder of Rabbi Zeira: A Pro-Mordechai Purim Shpiel.